On Open Mics and Embracing Doubt
As a Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse manager, a big part of my job is running our open mics. We run all kinds of open mics: variety shows, poetry nights, and even diary readings! The open mics bring in folks from far beyond Oberlin, which is one of the best parts. I’ve gotten to know the northeastern Ohio bluegrass community, made friends with couples who have been coming to sing at the Cat for decades, and have seen the vastness of talent that exists in this corner of the Midwest. Probably the wildest performance I’ve seen was with a musical saw!
One of my favorite parts of the Cat is the incredible level of support that exists for our performers. No matter how long someone has been practicing or performing, the audience will be enthusiastic, loving, and kind. It fosters a real sense of community and accessibility, I think. Open mics are open for a reason—they’re for everyone!
As a host, I have the special task of setting the tone for the night. I try to make sure that the energy stays up through the whole night, and that nobody goes over their 3-minute time limit (this is one of the harder and less glamorous parts of my job). Sometimes, I start off by asking everyone to shout the name of someone they love, or have them lean into their wild side and make whale noises. Anything that gets people to shake their nerves out a little is what I aim for!
Open mics aren’t perfect, though. They are often still dominated by one kind of performer or privileged white-guy-with-a-guitar identity, and that can definitely hinder folks from signing up. Sometimes we have standup sets that punch down instead of punching up, which isn’t OK. Then I have to have a hard conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to be held accountable for their words.
But being critical of the space we make is the whole point of the Cat, as we try to lead by example in terms of accessibility, support, and social justice. And I’m glad that we set our standards clearly from the very beginning of each show by reading the Cat’s Respect Policy. Open mics are a fascinating microcosm of society. We’re doing our darndest to make them the kind of place we want to spend time in.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned from running the open mic these last few years. I hope it encourages you to go for it next time you visit the Cat in the Cream!
It takes guts to pour your heart out on a Friday night.
Our open mics are attended by students, community members, faculty, and staff. Some of our more exciting visitors include a small rabbit (true story), and my own mom. You never know who’s going to step on stage, and that’s so awesome. What unites everyone who comes to an open mic is a willingness to be brave. I am always awed by the people who perform at the Cat—no matter their level of experience or the genre they’re participating in. The sheer will it takes to sit in the spotlight is impressive all on its own. It takes guts to go up there. That energy reverberates in the room every show.
Honesty builds community.
Last semester, the Cat hosted its first-ever Diary Reading Open Mic. We heard stories ranging from puberty drama to hiking fiascos, and the crowd loved all of it! I heard from many people afterward that the show created a real sense of connectedness for everyone there. To hear that we all went through similar struggles as 15-year-olds, that we all did embarrassing things in front of our crushes, and sometimes messed up in ways that weren’t as funny.
Though I’m sure it was nerve-wracking to read personal entries in front of a packed house, that openness was definitely rewarded by warmth and grace. We ended up doing a second reading because the feedback was so positive from the first show. It was just as well-attended as the first show! My personal favorite reading detailed Emily Highkin’s summer painting walls white, and the way her mind spiraled into existentialism as she repeated the same act of literally watching paint dry every day for three months. It was poignant and funny and reminded me how much there is to learn about everyone I meet here. I love the way that diary entries shed light on the ~profundity~ of the everyday. It makes me weep a tiny tear!
There is no bad Landslide cover.
I took my mic, and I took it down. I climbed the stage and I turned around. I saw my reflection in the snow-covered Cat ... Considering that I’m now a senior, my guess is I’ve worked at least 30 open mics. Considering that we get a Fleetwood Mac cover at least once a month, that means I’ve witnessed at MINIMUM 12-15 renditions of the lesbian all-time-great. Honestly, I’ll never get tired of it. It’s a really endearing way to see Oberlin’s multitude of musical personalities. There’s something almost meditative about listening to so many permutations of the same chorus.
When in doubt, put your name on the signup list.
This one is a little more practical. Sign-ups fill up fast, and it’s always a bummer when we have to turn someone away from the show. If you’re hesitant to sign up, just put your name down. You can always cross it out at intermission if the jitters are too much. But once the list is full, it’s full. I mean it!!!
The truest joy of the open mic is that it’s dependable. Every last Friday of the month, you can count on a quality show of 20 unique acts. Though calming your nerves to perform for the first time might seem unconquerable, know that in the grand scheme of things, nobody’s going to remember the tiny details you’re nervous about. So say yes!
What’s the worst that could happen?
Go ahead, y’all - rock your Landslide cover. I’ll be singing along from behind the counter every time.